Autism & Language Development - - Irish National Autism Charity (2023)

When someone receives an autism diagnosis, language development can be among one of the key concerns. It’s important to remember firstly that autism exists on a spectrum and communication can vary just like any other support need.

Why do people lose their ability to communicate a certain way?

There is no simple explanation as to why this might happen. It is important that if our child’s language development appears to regress that we are patient and understanding while remaining positive and encouraging. Remember in the world of autism that everyone’s journey of language development is unique.

Why does language develop in different ways?

It’s important to remember that regardless of autism, language development in the early years is extremely variable in all children. Each child is different. Verbal language will not develop at the same rate for everyone, sometimes it may not develop until later in life and some people will not use verbal language to communicate. This is okay. The trajectory of language development is different from person to person. For some people, they might have a large vocabulary of words that they use, but might be struggling to understand language or to understand the social aspects of communication. Building communication is about focusing on peoples’ strengths and supporting them in the aspects of communication that they find challenging.


What terminology should I use when describing my child’s language development?

People often describe language skills based on whether someone uses speech to communicate (verbal) or does not. In the past people typically used the term “non-verbal” to describe delayed language development. This term would suggest that an individual has no communication ability, when they might be using an alternative means of communication, such as gestures, sign language or a communication device. The term “non-verbal autism” could be offensive and an inaccurate description of an autistic person’s language development. Some people prefer the term “pre-verbal” because this term would indicate that a person’s language is still developing and it does not deny their current abilities or what other abilities they might develop further in the future. Other terms used include “minimally verbal” and “early communicators”. If you have a term that you prefer you can request that other people also use this term.

When should I visit my GP if I am concerned about my child’s communication?

You could refer to typical milestones of development to track your child’s progress. The HSE has some useful information about what you might typically see at different stages of your child’s development. If your child is attending any form of pre-school, it could be useful to ask the teachers if they have any concerns about their communication and for some more informal advice, and they may be able to direct you somewhere that you can seek some further help.

If you are concerned about your child’s language development (especially if your child has not received an autism assessment) in any way you can talk to a professional to get some general advice about what may or may not be typical language development. The outcome will be positive no matter what, it will give you peace of mind or it could be your first step to getting some extra support for your child. You can contact local Speech and Language Therapy services directly, or through your GP or other health worker.

What can I do at home to promote my child’s language development?

The home is a wonderful place to start working on promoting your child’s language development. Communication is all about developing language skills in natural, everyday settings and learning in real life scenarios. Communication centres on interactions, sending a message and understanding a message. At home there are plenty of opportunities to interact. We must think, what opportunities for communication can I build into these interactions?

  • Parents can be really good at knowing what their children want. Even without speech, we can often predict our child’s needs or wants through subtle hints in communication such as a gesture or a facial expression. Sometimes, although we may be able to predict what it is our child needs, we must allow them to independently communicate to us what that is. For example, asking “Show me what you want” and allowing them to gesture to you what they are looking for. You could offer a choice between two items. These are very basic, but effective, ways of encouraging your child’s communication.
  • Similarly, we can introduce opportunities for communication in routine activities. For example using a gesture of brushing your finger across your mouth to indicate that you are now going to brush your teeth. This helps your child to understand what is coming next. What you may start to see is that your child begins to mirror this gesture.
  • Spend time watching what your child is interested in. Your child’s interests provide valuable ways of introducing communication at home. If your child is interested in a game for example, spend time playing that game with them, encouraging communication as you do so, feeding in relevant language as they are expressing interest in the activity.
  • Imitation is another way to foster opportunities for communication with your child. If we mirror what our child is saying or doing, it allows them to notice us more. They realise that we are really noticing what they are doing and we are responding to them, meaning they will be more attentive.

A parent is typically an expert in their child’s language abilities, noticing any developments and improvements in their communication. Use this expertise to your advantage! Support your child by gradually encouraging more challenging language or communication skills as you notice improvements.

When looking online how do I know what information I can trust?

These days we can easily access lots of valuable information and resources online. However, it is important that we identify key, reliable and trustworthy sources of information. There might be local support groups in your area or even online on social media sites such as Facebook. These can be useful places to go to for advice. Linking in with people who have been in a similar situation to you can be a great first step when looking for support. You can also look to trustworthy websites such as the HSE, AsIAm, the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists (IASLT)National Autistic Society, Middletown Centre for Autism for guidance and advice as well.

When looking online, be careful that the information you are looking at is reliable. It is important that any interventions you find are evidence based. Sometimes, if you feel like you are struggling to find something that works, you may feel like you are willing to try anything to help your child. It can be a good idea to go back to your trustworthy sources of information mentioned above and ask if anyone has any experience with that intervention or strategy etc.? You should also check with your GP or Speech and Language Therapist if they are familiar with what you have come across online.

Why do some autistic people struggle to understand non-literal language?

Non-literal language is used in everyday communication. We use phrases like “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “I have a frog in my throat”, in our conversations. Autistic people can find this type of language confusing. One possible explanation for this may be that autistic people are strong visual communicators. While we all engage areas of our visual processing systems while we communicate, autistic people tend to access and use the visual systems in the brain in order to interpret all of the information that they hear. If you are using your visual system to picture these phrases or colloquialisms that come up in conversation it can become very confusing and difficult to get past this. For many autistic people they have to independently learn what people actually mean when they use these phrases and that can take quite a lot of time and effort. It can be useful to create visuals to explain what common phrases using non-literal language mean in order to help. You must be aware that if you are using non-literal language or even being sarcastic in your conversation with an autistic person, it can be difficult for them to understand or pick up on.

Will autistic people struggle to learn new languages?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to language development and therefore we cannot make generalisations about autistic people and their ability to learn new languages. Some autistic people have very strong linguistic skills and will respond very well to learning more than one language. For other people, learning a new language will present an added stress or difficulty. It is important that we have a flexible approach to bilingualism. It is important that people who are interested in learning a new language are provided with the opportunity to do so and are supported in doing so.

How can a therapist promote and support language development for my child?

A Speech and Language Therapist uses a family-centred approach. This means that within the therapy process they look not only at the child’s communication but at the family unit as a whole and how the family can support each other in their communication. The family are involved in generating goals and targets for their child. A family-centred approach ensures that the individual, their family and the Speech and Language Therapist are all working towards the same goal and focusing on what is meaningful for that family. A Speech and Language Therapist typically supports families to develop and work on language skills at home in their natural environment. This is called a naturalistic approach to therapy. They will look at how to support the family and the individual move to the next step of development and build responsive communication practices between the child and family. The Speech and Language Therapist will help the family learn how to tune into their child’s communication.

Sometimes, the Speech and Language Therapist will assist in more clinical ways such as working on eliciting certain sounds or words. Or alternatively, examining communication from a more behavioural perspective, offering advice on how to change communication-related behaviour in some way. A Speech and Language Therapist will often mix naturalistic and clinical methods of therapy, for example looking at developing language in a natural way by bringing in some specific strategies or skills to assist this.

Occasionally, it might be appropriate that a speech and language therapist works one-on-one with the parents rather than directly with the individual developing skills and strategies they can use to assist their child’s language development. Other times, parents might take a group approach to speech and language therapy. Parents often enjoy learning these strategies in a group setting as there is a social element to the learning.

Ultimately, speech and language therapy is about a collaboration between the therapist, autistic person and their family to learn skills and strategies to work towards your targets and goals as efficiently and as effectively as possible.

What is echolalia and why might my child engage in it?

Echolalia is a repetitive communication. With echolalia, an individual might repeat a phrase or even a whole chunk of communication. An individual might repeat something they have heard immediately, or the repetition could be delayed, repeating the communication later that day or even on a subsequent day. Echolalia can be a part of language development; it can act as a stepping stone towards learning more about language. People might engage in echolalia as a mechanism for remembering the context or situation in which a specific phrase is used. Gradually, over time, the individual will begin to alter how they use these words to fit more into their everyday language. In the context of autism, echolalia is a different way of learning and communication during language development.

What is Pica and what role does an SLT play in its treatment?

Pica is an eating disorder which involves the consumption of non-food items. It is important to talk to your GP and healthcare team about this. A Speech and Language Therapist might play in role in the multi-disciplinary treatment of Pica. A Speech and Language Therapist would focus on supporting the person to understand the difference between food and non-food items and investigating the point of view of the person who is experiencing Pica.

What is Verbal Stimming?

Verbal Stimulatory behaviour or verbal stimming describes how someone might repeat a word or a phrase or a noise in order to regulate their environment. If an autistic person finds their environment to be overwhelming, they might ‘stim’, as it is often referred to, in order to soothe themselves in some way. It is important to understand that this behaviour serves a purpose for the individual and if you aim to reduce or stop that behaviour, it could increase the individual’s anxiety. Stimming is a key part of autism and understanding what a stim is expressing can be helpful towards their language development.

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